500 join in annual chess challenge

Stephen Foster fifth-grader Sydney Seavers, right foreground, plays chess against Robert Kaplan-Stein of the Alachua County Scholastic Chess Association during Friday’s Chess Challenge.

Published: Friday, May 16, 2014 at 7:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 16, 2014 at 7:18 p.m.

On Rishi Gadikota’s seventh birthday, a chess tournament opened his eyes and spawned a motivation to compete that he says now burns inside his belly.

Rishi is now 8 years old, and has been to both state and national chess tournaments.

A third-grader at Williams Elementary, Rishi was one of the nearly 500 elementary students participating in the Alachua County Scholastic Chess Association’s annual “Chess Challenge” at Stephen Foster Elementary School on Friday.

For Rishi, a game he learned to play by observing his dad has now become a passion.

Rishi taught his brother, Pranay, a kindergartner at Hidden Oak Elementary, how to play and compete in chess.

“I want to teach people, and get them more interested,” said Rishi, wearing the blue shirt that indicated he was a competitor in Friday’s Chess Challenge.

Rishi’s mom, Sreedevi Challa, smiled as she talked about her sons’ involvement in chess.

“Everyone can benefit from this,” she said. “I believe that chess is academically and socially a good thing. I wish more kids would compete in tournaments.”

Challa said she sees the game as such a quiet one, yet one that lets children make decisions that can have real-life applications. When she sees the enthusiasm in her sons, she hopes the game may be integrated into their school curriculum in the future.

“Only positive things can come from this,” she said.

Rishi’s enthusiasm to teach the game is what inspired him to compete Friday morning at Stephen Foster.

The Chess Challenge started 15 years ago, said the association’s organizer, Robert Kaplan-Stein, who believes the game really influences young minds.

“It’s been shown that it helps critical thinking skills,” Kaplan-Stein said.

Chess is valuable because the game teaches logic, deductive reasoning, thinking and analytical skills that most kids don’t develop, he said.

“It’s like putting water to a dry sponge. Kids just take it in,” he said, adding that as kids get better at chess, they become more self-reliant.

“If all we did in life was win all the time, it would be different. The game teaches kids how to lose,” he said. “There’s definitely a certain amount of sportsmanship covered.”

Students involved in Friday’s competition each received a new chess set, a T-shirt and a tote bag — made possible through donations from around 50 companies, Kaplan-Stein said.

Each class at Stephen Foster competed in Friday’s challenge and each created its own coat of arms for the occasion.

“One class was called the ‘Chess Chickens,’ because they were feeling a little afraid,” Kelly Kostamo, partnership specialist for the school system, said, laughing. Kostamo solicited the fundraising for the event.

In addition to Stephen Foster’s students, 35 students from other Alachua County elementary schools also competed.

Kostamo said she believes chess teaches students to learn how to plan ahead, and to think and plan strategically. “It’s a polite game,” she said.

Watching the chess matches from the back of the cafeteria, Stephen Foster Principal Jim Kuhn smiled.

“It’s a great experience, and all grade levels are here,” he said. “Every child is playing, and every child is engaged.”

Kuhn explained that the kids are playing and learning from each other.

“You take something that makes them think critically, and they are learning without knowing they’re learning.”

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